A Race for Rats in The Winter of Our Discontent

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A Race for Rats in The Winter of Our Discontent 

Some runners look only to the finish line, choosing to ignore what they step on or who they pass along the way. In The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck portrays the dawning of a selfish American society concerned solely with winning personal races. Set in a small New England town during the early sixties, the story focuses on the life of Ethan Allen Hawley, an intelligent man with prestigious family history who is employed as a grocer to the dismay of members of his family and the community. At the beginning of the novel, Ethan had not yet adopted the new religion of America, to "look after number one" (26,291) in order to gain money and social standing. However, as the
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Competing against each other in an "I Love America" essay contest leads to Ellen’s revealing Allen’s plagiarism after he wins. Allen in turn hits his sister (353). Allen’s lack of family values is again evident when he refuses to work in the grocery store during the summer (217). "Looking after number one" (26, 290) turns the Hawleys into a dysfunctional family not willing to support or to sacrifice for one another.

Throughout the novel, characters race not only past their families but also past their friends. Margie Young-Hunt, "…a predator, a huntress..." (21) picks Ethan as "her project" (222), although he is married to Mary, her friend. Ethan, too, chooses to put friendship aside in order to achieve his selfish goals. Ethan goes so far as to turn his own boss into the immigration office in order to won the grocery store. Perhaps the most manipulative action Ethan takes is against his childhood friend, Danny Taylor. Ethan offers Danny, in exchange for Danny’s land as collateral, $1000 to go to a rehabilitation center, even though Ethan knows Danny will use the money for alcohol (153). Ethan is willing to put his friend’s life as risk in order to won valuable land and to exact revenge on an old adversary, Mr. Baker. One night Ethan woke up and "knew Danny was gone" (195) as a result of their trade-off. However, Ethan reasoned, "In business and in politics a man must carve and maul his way through men to get to be King of the Mountain. Once there he can

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